Republic should axe ‘repressive’ Covid quarantines, says Willie Walsh

Air transport chief warns that State sending ‘dangerous’ message

The State should axe its repressive and dangerous Covid-19 hotel quarantine rules, former airline chief, Willie Walsh, told politicians on Wednesday.

Mr Walsh, former chief executive of Aer Lingus owner, International Airlines' Group, and now director general of the International Air Transport Association, said he was disappointed with the Republic's tough travel restrictions.

"The quarantine arrangements put in place are repressive and should be removed," Mr Walsh told Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks.

"This is particularly dangerous for a country like Ireland, where the message being sent is that we don't want people travelling into the country."

The Irishman noted that other EU countries did not have this restriction on entry. He pointed out that just 3 per cent of those quarantined here tested positive for the virus.

“So 97 per cent of people forced to pay over €1,800 for the pleasure of being locked in a hotel for two weeks were perfectly fine,” Mr Walsh said.

“I don’t know why we automatically assume that someone flying in from another country is infected: that isn’t the case.”

He added that the Irish figures were consistent with data collected on incoming travellers to the UK over six weeks, where just 2.5 per cent tested positive.

Government must begin re-opening travel now as airlines have fewer aircraft available, so will only allocate them where they believe there is demand, he counselled.

“Ireland is at the end of the queue. There is going to be very little capacity available to Ireland. That means in-bound tourism is going be choked.”

In particular, Mr Walsh urged the State to re-open travel to US residents who have been vaccinated, even while Washington maintains its ban on inward travel from Europe.

“You could do that tomorrow,” he stressed, arguing that the Republic’s links with the US were critical to its economy. The air travel industry boss explained that the US will allow vaccinated residents to leave and return without restriction.

He predicted that it would take Aer Lingus years to rebuild the transatlantic network that fuelled most of its growth in the five years before Covid curbs grounded air travel in 2020.

“The Aer Lingus transatlantic fleet will be smaller post Covid,” he said. Mr Walsh questioned if the airline would be go ahead with new services announced before the virus struck.

He also doubted if the airline could continue with flights to destinations including San Francisco and Seattle, which were just beginning to mature financially. "That will hit inward investment," Mr Walsh warned.

Elsewhere on the transatlantic, the ITAA director predicted that US carriers would be slow to rebuild their Irish flights.

“They will serve Ireland, but not to the same degree and probably more on a seasonal basis than on a year-round basis,” he predicted.

Mr Walsh agreed with several TDs and senators that it was “terribly sad” to see Aer Lingus close its Shannon base, with the potential loss of up to 126 jobs. But he argued that Government travel policy had left the carrier in a desperate situation.

Mr Walsh said that given the Republic’s dependence on its links with the restof the world, the State’s attitude to travel throughout the crisis had amazed him.

“I can’t figure it out, it has beenone of the things that has most surprised me about this, I thought Ireland would have been totally the opposite.”

Barry O'Halloran

Barry O'Halloran

Barry O’Halloran covers energy, construction, insolvency, and gaming and betting, among other areas